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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Smash: “The Surprise Party”

Illustration for article titled Smash: “The Surprise Party”
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My wife’s birthday is on Wednesday, and a couple of days ago, she asked me what I was going to do for said occasion. I froze. We had been planning on taking a trip a couple of weekends after her birthday, which is our usual way of celebrating, and we had reservations for her favorite restaurant the night of. I didn’t realize I was supposed to do more, but she seemed kind of bummed about it.

So, as is my way, I wrote a song about her and had Liza Minnelli perform it.

One of the fun things about Smash is that it takes place in a Broadway wonderland, where things like the above can actually happen. And Liza dropping by to sing a song Tom wrote in honor of Ivy’s birthday would be kind of a sweet moment, because Liza’s still got it, and it’s always fun to see Christian Borle sing/play the piano, and when Megan Hilty says, “Okay, sorry, Liza Minnelli,” it actually plays like an actually funny joke. The problem with Smash has always been that the Broadway wonderland qualities have been the sole connection to what’s ostensibly the show’s reason for existing, instead of the dessert, like they might be in a series that was more dedicated to actually deriving drama from the process of mounting a Broadway show (or seven). Smash, like so many network dramas, took an interesting premise and mostly made it about people fuckin’.

I guess I would say the second season of Smash has been “better” than the first season, in that it’s more consistent, and it rarely has anything jaw-droppingly, astonishingly bad in it. But the flipside of that is that there’s very little in it that rises to the level of very good or even great. Say what you will about former showrunner Theresa Rebeck, but she had a vision for this show. Admittedly, it was sometimes a completely nutzoid vision that didn’t make any sense whatsoever, but it at least had something to do with something. In its second season, the show has occasionally made stabs at being about a bunch of people trying to put on a Broadway show, but it’s mostly turned into an interpersonal soap. And who needs another one of those?

“The Surprise Party” offers a good “for example,” as a matter of fact. Season one’s “in tech” episode was filled with some boneheaded interpersonal soap storylines—I believe that was where Ivy slept with Dev?—but it also delved into the tech rehearsal process, at least as much as a network TV show was going to delve into such a thing. People’s nerves got frayed, everybody seemed about five minutes away from punching each other in the face, and every single person in the cast was forced to say, “I’m in tech!” five or six million times. It was an episode we Smash watchers mocked mercilessly, but on some level, we mocked it because we loved it. It was goofy and strange, sure, but it was also at least vaguely fun to watch, and it was set in a world that could sustain a TV show that featured conflicts beyond the generic. Or, rather, the generic conflicts—everybody’s mad at each other!—grew out of the specific—because they’re in tech!

In “The Surprise Party,” Bombshell is in tech, and a few characters say, “I’m in tech” or “We’re in tech,” but their heart isn’t really in it. Because the central conflict of this episode has nothing to do with the show’s foundation. Tom and Ivy’s friendship is over because he cast her mother in Bombshell, in one of the highly contrived personal storylines the show has turned to more and more this season, and now it’s her birthday, and he’s forgotten all about it. This is a storyline that doesn’t need Broadway to exist. Hell, it barely needs human beings to exist. You could probably tell this storyline with some of the smarter apes or definitely dolphins or maybe even cocker spaniels. The solution to the problem—Tom gets Liza to perform his birthday song—is pure Broadway, but it doesn’t have the same weight as it should because the problem itself is so utterly generic and stupid. After Liza performs, Ivy leaves for her real party and doesn’t invite Tom, but of course, he discovers it because she left her keys at the restaurant where Liza performed. And the whole thing concludes with the two deciding they’re changing. No, they’re not. They are two fictional characters who have been put through a bullshit plot point to eat up time in a season of television that has no idea what it’s doing.

Phew. Sorry.

The other storylines all have to do with Hit List, which continues to feel like Rent, if the plot of Rent was told to you by a suburban mom, based entirely on what she’d gleaned from reading a couple of news articles about it back when the show opened. (“I think they were on the drugs?!”) I still don’t entirely know what Hit List is supposed to be about—even though Kyle and Jimmy have told the audience the plot point blank several times—and the more I learn about it, the stupider it all seems. Basically, it seems like a musical tailor-made to have Katharine McPhee’s non-Broadway voice not seem so non-Broadway, so it mostly consists of songs that wouldn’t sound out of place on an Avril Lavigne album. (This is not to besmirch the lovely Ms. Lavigne, whose “Sk8ter Boi” was the first dance at my wedding.) This means every episode, we get a generic “pop-rock” type song that McPhee and Jeremy Jordan belt their way through, and then characters nod about how “edgy” and “interesting” it is, because those are adjectives our theoretical mom would apply to Rent. Tonight’s original number is the nadir of that approach, as Karen sings some bullshit about pop stars wanting to be “original,” and it’s probably the worst original song in the history of the show (and, in general, I think the original songs have been one of the best reasons to keep tuning in).


That wouldn’t be a problem if, again, the storylines weren’t just about people fuckin’. The most promising one seems to be Kyle trying to make the story of a show that opens in a month make sense with the help of Julia and Tom Collins from Rent, but what it devolves into is mostly just Kyle saying, “And what if I moved this here,” then moving a note card on a board while Julia nods sagely, then lots of talk about how the other two should probably start having sex. Meanwhile, Jimmy and Derek fight, yet again, about who gets to have sex with Karen, and she’s mad about it for a little while, but then she isn’t when Jimmy consents to be seen in public with her. The lives of the rich and famous, am I right?!

Smash, ultimately, just feels like a show that was able to cut the big, obvious flaws but didn’t understand how to fix its core, because it was afraid of isolating the public. In the process, it made something so bland that it isolated everyone. While there have been some moments I’ve enjoyed this season—and I’m still covering the show, so, clearly, I want to keep watching—for the most part, it’s turned into a long parade of talented people and Katharine McPhee realizing the show with such promise they signed on for has become… this. At least under Rebeck, things sometimes exploded in interesting, weird fashion. Now, they mostly fizzle out.


Stray observations:

  • I don’t know that I’m “taking over for Noel” so much as subjecting myself to a really weird test of just what I’m willing to do for my job. (Believe me, I assigned myself this.) Noel saw the show moving to Saturdays and quite rightly said, “I’m outta here!” I looked at that and saw an opportunity. Plus, I’ve wanted to write about this show for a while for reasons I’m still not precisely certain of.
  • Hey, shouldn’t the arts editor of the Times recuse himself from all stories about Smash because he’s dating the producer? This doesn’t mean he can’t keep doing stories about Hit List. It has him intrigued!
  • Every time I see Jesse L. Martin’s office, I zero in on that Rent poster, which appears to be signed by the original cast. Does anybody on this show know who Jesse L. Martin even is?
  • Don’t you think more shows would be better if Michael Riedel dropped by to just occasionally offer up awful puns?
  • If this season ends with a cliffhanger based on whether Karen or Ivy wins the “Best Actress in a Musical” Tony, I am going to set things on fire.

(Continuing a tradition from my Gifted Man reviews, I’m going to bury excerpts from my never-to-be-published Frank Fisticuffs novels at the bottom of the stray observations. I mean, why not? Nobody’s going to read this anyway!)

That Khemkaeng had survived the gunshot wound was not surprising to Frank, who’d seen weaker men survive worse. That he’d done so by moving to the moon was even more surprising to him.


“I didn’t know there were people living up here,” Frank said. “I mean, on the moon.”

Khemkaeng nodded gravely at him. “Oh, yes. There have been since the 1940s. It was a secret project of the French Resistance. Project Dark Side. Only it was in French.”


“What do you need me to do?” Frank asked, clutching the back of the pterodactyl firmly for support.

“We’ve learned that New York Times arts editor Richard Francis uses a pacemaker. He has a bad heart.”


“Most people with pacemakers do,” Frank mused, stroking his chin.

“We want you to get the number on that pacemaker and bring it back to us. We can hack into it over the Internet and give him a heart attack.”


“Really?” Frank asked.

“Yes. Really. We have a better Internet on the moon.”

New York Times arts editor Richard Francis?”

“He panned Young Frankenstein: The Musical. He must pay.”